When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.I'll defer a discussion of what exactly Jefferson meant by his use of the rather odd (and intentionally ambiguous) phrase "Nature's God" for another day because I want to focus instead on the political and legal issues that impelled these men -- men of privilege, education, and wealth -- to break ranks with the elites of the Empire and take up arms against King and Country. Even in the preamble, one thing can be clear -- they no long thought of themselves as part of the same people as the British. They thought of themselves as "Americans" instead; they had formed a separate national identity.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.See above with respect to "Nature's God" regarding Jefferson's (intentionally ambiguous) reference to the "Creator." Of more interest to me today is the fact that the Founders signed on to a conception of rights inherent in humanity. Everyone has those rights.
And those rights included life, liberty, and something called "the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson was as familiar as any of the rest of his colleagues and fellow Enlightenment scholars in Philadelphia with the conception of fundamental human rights as life, liberty,and property. He'd read Thomas Paine. He'd read Montesquieu. But he chose to use the phrase "pursuit of Happiness" instead of "property," perhaps not wanting to seem callous.
More importantly, he seemed to conceive of property as a component of what it was to be happy. It takes a certain amount of material possessions to be happy -- a roof over your head, clothes to wear, food to eat, and the security that those things will not be taken from you. But Jefferson also surely knew that at a certain point, more and more possessions become superfluous and happiness comes from other things -- intellectual growth, professional challenges, the companionship of friends and family. For freedom to lead to happiness, it must encompass more than the ability to acquire material possessions.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.Here, we move from pure political philosophy to the world of practical reality. Government is a necessity, but that does not mean all forms of government are alike. The essence of Enlightenment political thought, which is the cornerstone of our political thought today, is found in this clause: "from the consent of the governed." To our way of thinking, in the world that Jefferson and his colleagues created, "the consent of the governed" is the only way imaginable to reconcile the freedom of a people with the legitimacy of their government.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.And here begins the call to arms. When the government becomes an obstacle to, and not a vehicle for, the people to realize their freedom, something has to change. This does not mean a "light and transient" grievance, as Jefferson described it. A flawed government should be tolerated and the virtuous citizen, the patriot, with a legitimate complaint against the government should work within its systems to change and improve it rather than discard it out of hand.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.Jefferson here says that things have gone beyond the measure with which the response of the virtuous free citizen must be tolerance, sufferance, and endurance. The colonists had, on multiple occasions, petitioned Parliament and Crown with their grievances, with the deprivations of their rights as Englishmen. They (at least in their own minds) had given King George the benefit of the doubt for a generation, assuming him to have been given bad counsel by corrupt ministers or a misguided Parliament. "Patient sufferance" had come to an end -- "enough is enough," in more modern language.
And this is where it gets good. We should not forget that the colonists' complaints against the Crown were not based on an abstract conception of human rights. They believed that their rights recognized by long-established English law were being disregarded, that people in England itself would have had better treatment by the law than they got. And they were right:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.It's not clear that the colonies had a legal right to home rule, but in those days it was a practical necessity. The various colonies had set up local legislatures of their own and proposed local ordinances for both taxation and various day-to-day functions of government. King George and his Parliament had suspended those local legislatures, indicating that all laws to govern the colonies would come from London and the appointed local viceroys. After all, the fastest voyage from the colonies to England was six weeks each way, which meant that when something happened in, say, North Carolina, it could be half a year before the government reacted to it.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
And it's not as if the local legislatures were defying King and Parliament by governing locally -- they were talking about organizing local militias to prevent against Indian raids, regulating and taxing the sale of liquor, and establishing the times and places for local markets. All repealed and dissolved by fiat of a King who had never even so much as visited America.
When the colonists suggested, as an alternative, that boroughs for Parliamentary elections be organized in America, so that they could at least send some of their own representatives to London to participate in the law-making that King George insisted must be done near Whitehall Palace, the suggestion was rebuffed with a mixture of scorn and contempt by the Royal Court and the King's Tory proxies in the Commons.
Finally, a compositional note -- consider the phrase: "opposing with manly firmness". In today's world, a discussion of something "firm" and "manly" sets the mind immediately to the gutter, but that is rather obviously not what Jefferson was getting at. The colonists, by trying to set up a local government to take care of their day-to-day problems, were doing only what anyone would have done, and it was so obviously both needed and within their rights, that to relinquish those rights would be tantamount to denying their own humanity. "Are we not men?" Jefferson asks. "For if we are, we must be able to act as men and govern ourselves."
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.Here, I separate this from the other "home rule" complaints in the Declaration. This gets back to something theoretical, and he kind of sneaks it in here. Because it would take half a year or more for the government in London to react to situations on the ground, if the King dissolves local government then he was functionally reducing the colonies to a state of anarchy. If the government is dissolved, then people revert to a state of nature -- and the natural response of people in a state of nature is to form a new government. So here, Jefferson makes the case that the English colonists were simply creating a new government out of the anarchy that the King had imposed on them.
This ignores, of course, the fact that anarchy was about the opposite of the governmental situation the colonists were faced with. In fact, the various colonies had governors, appointed by the King, who served as his viceroys and could react with immediacy to local issues. They had direct, personal command of the military. But they were accountable only to London, not to the people over whom their power was exercised. Thus, to Jefferson, this was not government at all, but dictatorship and the opposite of government "with the consent of the governed."
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.How interesting that Jefferson and the Founders viewed immigration as a good thing. And well they should have -- their lands were under-populated (with Europeans, anyway) and much land was not being "usefully exploited." People from around the world, and especially from other nations in Europe, wanted to come and make new lives and fortunes for themselves in America. The colonists saw the industry and talents of these people and wanted to welcome them and integrate them into their own societies. The King correctly saw that the integration of non-Englishmen into the colonies would erode the loyalty of the colonists to the Crown; why should a Frenchman or a Spaniard reflexively obey him? Thus, for the sake of keeping Crown control over the colonies, the colonies were not permitted to realize their full potential. They were to be kept poor and weak so they could be kept in control.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.The ability of an Englishman to appeal to a court for justice was fundamental, at least in Jefferson's mind, to being free. In particular, the judge had to have the practical ability to stand up to the King.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
An independent judiciary is indispensable to a free people. And King George had labored mightily to render the judiciary in the colonies subservient to the will of the Crown.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.See above concerning the viceroyal government -- unelected, unaccountable, and necessarily corrupt. In particular, the concern was that tax collectors came from England and were paid (in part) a bounty on the taxes they collected. Even had the tax collectors been chosen from among the colonists, it would have been better. But locals refused to implement the taxes, and the King and Parliament viewed (not without some justice, at least from their own perspectives) the colonies as needing to generate sufficient money to pay for themselves. But Jefferson's rebuttal, and it was then and remains today the compelling end to the discussion, was that assuming this were necessary, the locals were not stupid and possessed the ability to organize local governments to meet that need.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.Martial law is, of course, the opposite of freedom and liberty. That martial law should be imposed at a time when there was no foreign enemy was particularly obnoxious; that it should be imposed because of Englishmen demanding the rights of Englishment during peacetime was the very antithesis of English liberty.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.Worse yet, the rules and regulations imposed by martial law were enforced and in some cases written by Hessian (that is, German) mercenaries. If we're going to be living at gunpoint, can't those guns at least be held by our fellow Englishmen?
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.And where did those troops stay? Some in barracks, erected in the middle of, or in close proximity to, the towns and cities of the colonies; strategically located so as to maximize the ability of those troops to seize and control the cities, precisely as would have been done by an army of invasion and occupation.
And some of them, particularly in Boston, were quartered in private residences, with the homeowner obliged to house and feed and otherwise care for their resident soldier. In other words, your home was not your own and your very household labor would be taken from you to provide for the military occupation of your own land. It is easy to see how this would invoke outrage. It is difficult to see how anyone, even back in England, could have thought this was a good idea, one that would bring about reconciliation of colony and Crown.
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.Again, the importance of a free and independent judiciary. Again, the importance of justice. Again, the burden, this time borne in blood, of military occupation by one's own government. British soldiers had fired on colonists resisting taxes, and returned to London for trial, where they were acquitted.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the worldThe Embargo Acts prevented any trade with any nation other than England, to further control taxation and the flow of goods to the colonies. A free people should be able to trade with whomever they like and realize the full value of the fruits of their labors.
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.It's not that the colonists didn't want to pay taxes at all. At least, the Founders understood the necessity of taxation to pay for the functions of government, which were obviously necessary. But they had no voice in how they were taxes and the manner of taxation seemed both arbitrary and unfair. They were willing to tax themselves, and had even tried to do so, through their local legislative efforts, which had been quashed by the King.
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury.Once again, the importance of the traditional English system of the administration of justice. Trial before a military or viceroyal court was seen as simply unfair; the result of such a trial would be a foregone conclusion and the right of an Englishman was to a trial before his peers.
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
Jefferson here refers to the Gaspée Affair, in which colonists burned a ship sent to aid in the collection of customs duties off Rhode Island. The colonists accused of the crime were to be taken back to London for trial, rather than being tried locally. (Eventually, they were tried, and convicted, in Newfoundland.)
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these CooloniesTHis refers to the Canada Act, which prevented the thirteen colonies that eventually became the United States from expanding westward, while permitting other colonies that had not demonstrated any "uppity" behaviors (those that became the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario) to grow. Again, the American colonies were to be kept weak and submissive in order to enforce compliance with Crown rule.
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:The "charters" were the original documents establishing the Colonies, which provided for some measure of home rule, and which provided for the extension of various civil rights.
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.See above regarding the regular military units using force on civilians to enforce taxes and quartering requirements, the Gaspée, and more incidents like these.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.Jefferson here indulges his talents for rhetorical flourish, but you can also tell that from the initial moderate complaints about local government he has started to build up a head of steam. The Hessians, the military government, the quartering, and the arbitrary laws imposed from without the Colonies and with no apparent regard for the welfare of them, all summed up into one complaint.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.The impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy was an issue then; it would eventually become a precipitating cause of the second war between Britain and the United States in 1812.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.It seems strange that the King would send his agents to agitate Indian tribes to raid British colonies, and indeed it is not likely true. But Royal agents did arm the Indians, initially to fight th French during the Seven Years' War, and having done so, the arms trade with various tribes did continue at the hands of Royal agents who knew full well that the weapons were going to be used against western settlements of the colonies. The crime here is of disregard for the colonists' safety rather than actually allying with the Indians against the colonists, but on the other hand, many tribes did side with the British and aid the redcoats during the Revolution. The groundwork for those alliances had to have been laid beforehand, and the Indians, not being stupid, would surely have known that they were pawns in a larger game and must have seen some advantage to themselves for acting that way.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.This is an important part of the appeal of the Declaration that the Revolution's cause was just. Indeed, having argued before that a revolution against a government should not be undertaken lightly, Jefferson must necessarily state that attempts, exhaustive and repeated, to work within the system have already been attempted. And indeed they had been -- there had been many entreaties to Parliament, various ministers, to the King himself.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.
We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.This is so distinctly American in nature that it almost brings tears to the eye. I cannot think of a nation that has been quicker to reconcile with its former military adversaries and make them friends, trading partners, allies, and to integrate the peoples of its former enemies into itself. How many Vietnamese became Americans? How many Russians? Germans? Italians? Mexicans? Do we have better friends in the world than our original military adversaries, the British? Do we have any doubt that we will grow close to the Iraqis and Afghans as a result of our involvement in those nations; that there will be more immigration and cultural exchange with these peoples? Of course, and it's a very good thing, too. America is a nation quick to forgive and reconcile; we as a people seem incapable of bearing multi-generational animosity and ready and even eager to adapt and incorporate the strengths and traditions of those with whom we come in contact. This is one of the things that has made us a truly great people and a great nation.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.It is done. A nation is born.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.And fight and bleed and pay they would. It would not be for another seven years that peace would prevail along the east coast of America; the entire Atlantic would be the scene of a civil war in which the mother country lost. She lost not through strength of arms but through the sapping of her will to fight, because too many Englishmen knew that the colonists were right, they knew that their cause was just, and they knew that the price of victory would be far greater than the price of defeat.
In reading the Declaration, you can see premonitions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You can see the things which so outraged the Founders about the oppressive rule of King George, you can see the values that they thought so critical to being free men that they would enshrine them in the Constitution. And you should remember that those ideas are still as alive today, and must remain as vital to our existence and identity today as they were eleven generations ago. We face great challenges, things the Founders could not have imagined. Nor did they presume to set down all of the solutions to all of the issues their nation would face. But they did give us our principles, our morals, and our spirit. They bought those for us with their blood and their tears and their anguish and their loyalty and their very selves. And for that, we owe them a huge and eternal debt.
We also owe a debt to the French and the Dutch for their aid in our cause, and we owe a debt to those members of Parliament and the King's Cabinet who could see reality for what it was. But most of all, we owe a debt to those daring men and women who risked all, who were willing to stake their very lives and the honor that they held more dear than their lives to fight for their rights as Englishmen, to fight for their rights as human beings. Benjamin Franklin knew the stakes full well, as he said after closing the Congress that adopted the Declaration:
Gentlemen, now we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.They did not hang separately. They founded a great nation, a nation that, despite its flaws, we can be proud to be part of. A nation dedicated to freedom and liberty, a nation of fundamentally decent people, a nation of self-governing people. We Americans should all be grateful to be part of it. And we should not forget, in the midst of our holiday festivities, why we celebrate and why we should be proud of our heritage of liberty and bravery. May we be good custodians of that legacy for the future.